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  • Writer's pictureChurch of the Incarnation

When we make idols of what was: on spiritual pride

Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?" But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.” 


Let me cut right to the chase here: Jesus grieves when we mistake following the law - that is, rigid customs or practices - for following God. The problem comes when our rigid customs and practices prevent us from paying attention to the person before us - what that person is desperately longing for and how they might need to hear or see God in order to open up to his healing.  


In our reading from Deuteronomy, we have laid out for us God’s law about taking a Sabbath rest from work: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work--you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.” 


So there is the law about the Sabbath. Follow this law and all the customs and practices associated with it that you’ve probably learned at Synagogue through your priests, and you will be doing God’s will, right? Except that Jesus comes along and says, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions."


Then Jesus says to them: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.” In other words, the point of having a Sabbath day isn’t simply observing a Sabbath day as if doing so is good in itself. In fact, having Sabbath isn’t about a particular literal 7 day week with 6 days of work and one day of rest. 


The point of having a Sabbath rest is that human beings need physical, mental and emotional rest - they need time to reflect so they are not caught up in themselves and their own presumptions. Indeed the point of having a Sabbath rest is so that our concrete lives together might point beyond our frail and limited selves, our inability to have God’s certainty about things that we desire because we think they give us God-like control - to point beyond ourselves to the power of God at work: “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake … But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” 


This is what so grieves Jesus: I came not to condemn but to heal, he says. I came not to condemn, but to forgive. I came not to judge and destroy as I very well could. I came to offer myself as a slave to you, I will put away my own desire and my own capacity, to be made a little lower than the angels for a while,  so that each one of you coming from millions of different circumstances of understanding, knowledge, worldly power, personality, blindnesses, unconscious behaviour patterns, foolishness, immaturity, childishness, intelligence, education, capacity, financial situation, age, health, etc., might have an opportunity to receive my healing grace. And moreover, to share that grace that you have only by God’s mercy and forgiveness, not because you deserve it by your own power, understanding or knowledge. 


The Pharisees though, even after Jesus offers this first corrective teaching that the point of observing the Sabbath is to allow God’s grace to be seen, are still heart hearted in insisting that God is the Sabbath practice. So Jesus shows them and calls to us not to be deaf and blind in a far more concrete way: yes, my friends, it’s the Sabbath. This is a well established practice or observation that you have. And the practice was given to you for a reason. But if that practice blinds you to what was behind the reason - the needs of those in your communities who are sick, weak, hungry, uninformed, sad, in pain - if you are blinded to these things by being so insistent on ‘keeping your practice’ - then this practice has has become an idol to you. 


It is not the practice that makes you God’s witness. It is loving that one who is your brother or sister, seeing their need, as did the disciples in Acts who took all they had in common to share with one another, or forgiving 70x7 times, or not seeking retribution as God corrects in Cain and Abel, or not cutting off an enemy, or like Jesus, loving in spite of failures and betrayals … that love of brother and sister, a self sacrificial love, is what allows the kind of healing of our souls represented by the man with the withered hand.


To see the other person and act in accordance with their need to hear, see and receive healing as you were healed by God, to give up static practices you substitute for God; to act with kindness, peace, patience, generosity, forbearance, gentleness, and self-control - is to point to or bear witness to God: “For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.” AMEN


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